Passed. Another passed. This one seems more violent somehow. Perhaps it's the fact that John Huston is behind the camera. It's not like it's that far off the mark of what other films noir do, but it just kind of feels it somehow. There's a tragic tale of a father on the wrong side of the law. He'll never see his baby again. That's pretty depressing, but I don't know if it specifically falls under any purview of the MPAA. Oh, the gross old man ins into younger girls. You can put that on your list. Regardless, it just seems rougher than its peers. Regardless, passed!
DIRECTOR: John Huston
Do you know how exciting it is for me to break out the old LaserDisc player? It's very exciting. Sure, it gets frustrating within seconds because the hunk o' junk doesn't work very well. But when it gets going, it's a really good time. Also, my wife genuinely enjoys making fun of me for the LaserDisc player, so any time it gets to justify its own existence is something that I can consider a bit of a win. I was going to use this movie as an extra credit assignment. The last time I watched it was when I purchased my LaserDisc player almost two decades ago. (If you do the math, you can still see that I had no reason to buy a LaserDisc player, but I'm not going to explain myself to you. I love movies.) The weirdest thing about The Asphalt Jungle is, despite the fact that I've seen it twice --once recently--I have a really hard time remembering what the darn movie is about.
Like, I watched this less than a week ago. That's nothing. That's chump change. I tend to backlog my blog articles for longer periods of time than that. But it honestly took me looking through a lot of photos to jog my brain to what it is about. The worst part of it is, both times that I watched the movie, I really enjoyed them. My wife fought sleepiness out of boredom. Giving up her phone for Lent forces her to watch movies directly sometimes. (Although she has a caveat that work stuff is allowed and, basically, every article in the world is about Coronavirus.) But there's something that I can spin out of this that doesn't necessarily let me off the hook, but lets Huston off the hook. Commenting repeatedly that a movie is forgettable doesn't really sell it very well. But the thing that I do stress is the atmosphere and the tone of the whole thing.
A lot of the films noir that I've been watching have been pretty great. They tell a story of darkness and evil rooting around in men's souls. People do awful things to one another in the name of selfish preservation. But they all seem restricted to a certain degree. I don't want to make this a competition for best because this is only one element of cinema, but John Huston made The Asphalt Jungle perhaps the most intense and hard-boiled crime movie of the lot. I'm going to use Double Indemnity as the contrast, mainly because it might be my favorite OG film noir of the lot. Double Indemnity rides pretty hard on its plot, as does Asphalt Jungle. But what separates Indemnity from Jungle is the fact that Billy Wilder is kind of playing while he makes this movie. It's remarkably fun throughout. While I completely enjoy The Asphalt Jungle (as I write, the whole thing is coming back to me), it definitely feels like Huston is chain-smoking and drinking his way through the production. There's some kind of angst behind the whole thing. I'll always prefer Double Indemnity, but I can feel the studio over the head of Billy Wilder. Wilder is definitely an artist and Double Indemnity is art, but it is art that needs to make a buck or else Wilder's head is on the chopping block.
This is to assume that Huston was any different. It just feels like The Asphalt Jungle has a devil-may-care attitude towards filmmaking. The lighting is so harsh and the contrast is so intense. I'm flashing to that scene with James Whitmore in his diner. The diner is perfectly clean. There's nothing out of place. But the overhead lighting acts as an interrogator for everyone who walks in. It seems unpleasant, as does most of the film of Asphalt Jungle. That's probably why Marilyn Monroe seems shockingly out of place. Huston was known to be a bit of a man's director. I don't say this with a point of pride, but the guy loved what he loved. He hardly had time for femininity or vulnerability in his pictures. Instead, he touted up the rugged persona of the patriarchy and flew that flag as hard as he could.
But there's something so tragic about The Asphalt Jungle. The movie almost telegraphs the downfall of all these characters. Normally, I'm used to seeing the people who have the greatest falls have the highest highs. While it's hard to really nail down the protagonist of this film, I have to go to Dix because the movie almost tells me that I have to. Dix has the least character motivation. He's almost a protagonist because he has Jean Hagan working as a foil. We sympathize for her, thus we sympathize for Dix. He also begins and ends the movie, so that probably contributes to the whole affair. But Dix is never that great of a guy. It's really weird that Hagan's Doll is into him. He has no redeeming features. He gambles all of his money away. He treats her like dirt, but he's the protagonist. The movie really only alludes to his dream to escape in the latter half of the movie. It's almost like Huston is setting up the whole escape to be an ironic death for him. There's the image of his face in the grass as the horses graze around him that mockingly laughs at the idea that this character ever deserved a minute of joy.
And that's almost the purpose of the film as a whole. It's pretty common to see that the antiheroes of these films get their comeuppance. It was part of the standards and practices of the era. If you committed a crime in these movies, you needed to have some kind of punishment for your actions. It's the rules and it makes sense. But Huston, instead of rebelling against an era that was strict about morality in film, decided to ride that notion as hard as it could go. Everyone in this movie is absolutely horrendous and they all seem to be competing for more ironic end. Heck, they aren't even that ironic. They're just mercilessly tragic. It's a little torture porny. But, like, in the best way possible. I suppose that I should add suicide to the list of ways that people die in the MPAA rating, but I didn't think of it and now it has greater impact.
The odd thing is that The Asphalt Jungle has one of my favorite plots, despite the fact that I kept on how utterly forgettable it is. The thing about film noir is that it always seems to be surrounding the idea of a collapse of a morally ambiguous man. This movie takes full on pride in the immorality of its characters. In the dumbest connection that I can make, The Asphalt Jungle is the much more tragic precursor to Ocean's Eleven. There's a complexity to the heist. I think I'm just getting used to crimes kind of happening off screen that it is oddly refreshing that we get to see the beat-for-beat heist actually happen. And the weirdest part is that the most likable character in the movie is the perviest. Imagine Danny Ocean if he was into little girls. That's a weird choice. The movie presents Doc Erwin, a German geriatric in a post WWII America, as the most sympathetic character. He's the archetype of a man who has clear genius, but has been robbed of the opportunity to truly be something. Every scene with Doc Erwin reminds us that he's the smartest guy in the room, yet he is manipulated and handled. And he kind of knows it. It's this depressing element that forces us to empathize with him. It's because he's our grandfather. There is a void when it comes to likable characters, with the exception of Jean Hagan, who doesn't really have a meaty part in the movie. But then the movie throws in this really toxic trait.
Is it because we know that he has to have his just reward for his evil actions? I mean, I just said that John Huston really wanted to torture these characters. The character has two choices: 1) we could avoid that weird fatal flaw of liking younger girls (we're not talking kids, but teenagers...which is still gross especially when I write it). He goes to prison and that might be the most uncomfortable ending. Or 2), we need him to go to prison, so adding the fatal flaw makes it okay for us to understand that Erwin deserves what he got. It's an odd shift because before this moment, we are kind of rooting for the amoral gangsters to get away with their deeds. Perhaps, to align with the standards for the era, that had to be an element of disdain for the actions of the film. After all, there is a seductive appeal to watching the misdeeds of others. That's what the censors are genuinely worried about. It's silly, in retrospect. But then again, people actually admire the Joker and the Punisher, so they might have a point.
The Asphalt Jungle carries with it a great street cred that I keep remembering as I flip through my LaserDiscs. It's a pretty fantastic film noir and oddly is a standard for a lot of films from that era. I don't know why it's not on the syllabus, but I own it so who cares?
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.